I spent my formative years as a photographer working the crank on a Hasselblad 500 CM. I spent years looking into the large, clean, square finder through a beautiful assortment of German lenses, and I never really appreciated the comfort, security, and potential of that way of working until it all came crashing down in the digital "revolution" at the turn of the century.
From a work point of view, we migrated from "the best possible" to "good enough" when we let clients (and our own "geeky" natures) push us from our tried-and-true medium-format film workflow to the "almost ready for prime time" arena of 35mm digital cameras. Every month someone would publish an article (on the web) extolling the charms of these new digital cameras. And they would show examples (on the web) of bright, cheery images that were purported to be the equal of medium-format film.
But as we professionals know, there's more to the equation than a noise-free rectangle of accurate color. During the transition, we lost the square format that had formed the basis of composition for several generations of portrait photographers, and we'd lost that really cool thing that a 180mm f/2.8 lens does on a medium-format frame. It creates a small area of exquisitely sharp focus that falls off in a most graceful way to a fabulous field of ever-softening focus with a liquid "bokeh" and a solid feeling of dimensionality. Admit it--you miss the way your medium-format film camera used to make images, even as your clients enjoy the near-instant workflow of your latest digital purchase.
For the last eight years I've tried to make the digital stuff work. I'm a Nikon shooter, so it's been a parade of D's: the D1, D1x, D2x, and D3. I longed for the "look and feel" that I could only achieve using a big square negative.
In the box for the test
The Leaf AFi 7 is a joint venture of Leaf, Sinar, and Rollei. It looks similar to, and operates like, my Rolleiflex SL 6000 Series cameras, and the lenses work interchangeably between the systems. The standard 80mm f/2.8 "normal" lens was included, as well as the most intimidating and luxurious 180mm f/2.8 lens I've ever handled. It proved to be one of the sharpest and best-behaved medium telephotos I've ever shot with. Also included were two batteries, a charger, a waist-level finder, and a 45-degree prism finder.
I won't go over the camera inch by inch or spec by spec--in the internet age, it's just as easy to send you to www.leafamerica.com. I will mention a few facts about the camera that may be important to the way you like to work:
• The camera with the digital back, 45-degree prism finder, and 180mm lens attached is a beast, weighing close to 10 pounds. This setup makes a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III with an 85mm f/1.2L lens feel compact. It's much happier on a tripod--a big tripod.
• These cameras are no longer slow beasts of burden relegated to still lifes and stately shots of well-anchored models. Tethered you can shoot at 50 frames per minute with an unlimited burst depth. You can keep up that pace until your batteries die or until you fill a FireWire 800 hard drive. If you're shooting portable, a fast CompactFlash card will get you around 45 frames per minute, as each RAW file is a 16-bit, 33MP image.
• While the camera takes its time starting up, it operates with excellent fluidity and integration once it's engaged. The metering is on the money, and the white balance is perfect.
• It has evaluative metering and the full range of operating modes (A,S,M,P). I doubt you'd want to use one of these systems to shoot breaking news or a wedding, but the camera would be right there with you as far as metering and throughput was concerned. You can use this as a $36,000 P&S with a high degree of success, but why would you want to?
• The sharpness and detail go far beyond what I expected from just having more pixels at my disposal. Most lower-resolution cameras (under 16MP) need to have an anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor. This actually lowers the sharpness (or the line frequency) of the image hitting the sensor to prevent moiré from occurring. Moiré is created when the frequency of repeating patterns in an image "resonate" with the Bayer screens on most sensors. The stronger the anti-aliasing filter on the sensor, the less likely the chance of moiré--and the less fine detail your sensor can resolve. The sharpness is interpolated after the capture. Now enter the medium-format digital backs, which have no anti-aliasing filter. Their ability to render extremely fine detail is just breathtaking--a major plus.
• In my month-long comparison, where I evaluated images from various competitors and from 35mm-based digital cameras, I found these image files to be the absolute best in class. If your goal is the finest image quality available in medium-format digital imaging, this is one of the three cameras and back systems that will make it into your final cut. If you love the square finder, and mainly shoot in the studio, this will be the number one choice for you.
However, if you want the ultimate in imaging quality, be prepared to take a hit on several fronts:
• The camera's autofocus is slow. Even with bright modeling lights, the camera and 180mm lens would hunt for focus in a typical portrait lighting setup. I've been told that the camera I had contained an earlier firmware version. Once focused, though, the camera creates killer-sharp images, even wide open with the 180mm.
• Let's move on to batteries. The camera uses inexpensive lithium rechargeables, and you'll likely want a pocketful. I've come to believe that the batteries can sense the four gigs of storage on a CompactFlash card in this camera and are ingeniously programmed to run out of juice just as you run out of frames. The supplied charger could get you back in the game in about three hours, but if you shoot commercially, your client would be out the door in less than half that time.
I was sent two batteries to do my tests, and they moved back and forth to the charger a lot. To put it into perspective, four gigs is about 110 files for the Leaf AFi 7, given a reasonable amount of chimping on the rear screen. It reminds me a lot of my favorite old Kodak DCS 760. Buy five batteries. With smart management, that will get you through a long day.
According to my score card so far, the Leaf is six pros to three cons. But how does it look when you stop testing and start using it on a real job? This is one of those areas where if you know what you're looking for, you'll be blown away, but if you're a casual photographer, happy with your reduced-frame camera, you'll probably say "no big deal." But "big deal" really sums it all up.
Most cameras are working under the resolution limits of their sensor when you shoot files for prints up to 8x12 inches. And a well-exposed file properly processed will look pretty good no matter how big a camera it originated in. Picky photographers will note a different look to the depth-of-field and the "drawing" of the lenses, but most will see each comparative frame as being equally sharp with plenty of resolution.
The magic happens when the files get bigger. The sensor in the Leaf is still working under the numerical limits of its sensor at print sizes like 16x24 inches, and when you get close to the prints, you can really see a difference. The prints are richer, more detailed, and much more filmlike. I did a print test using files from a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, a Kodak SLR/n, and the Leaf system. I made prints at 5x7, 8x12, 16x24, and 30x40 from each camera using the same model, lighting, and settings. At 30x40, the Leaf was much sharper and showed details not apparent in the other two cameras.
Another facet to consider is the camera's incredible curb appeal. Art directors who've been around since the film days are clearly impressed by the look and feel of the Leaf.
So, will I rush right out and buy a Leaf AFi 7? Maybe. I loved the detail and the sharpness of the files. If the U.S. market were a bit stronger, and my clients were pushing for larger images, I'd probably take the plunge and use the camera in my marketing as a premium differentiator. Do I think it's the best camera on the market for medium format right now? Well, it's got a square finder, and the camera is set up to handle the square format that I love, so that would be a strong consideration (although the backs are a 645 aspect ratio). The body handles much like the Rollei cameras I like so much, and the system is an "open" architecture, which means you aren't tied to using only one manufacturer's back. All are big pluses for the Leaf.
The question is: Do you or I need a very high-end, high-resolution solution to service clients or to realize a vision?
You probably do if you're in a market that will appreciate the differentiation this kind of product provides; you routinely do images that end up in large, well-printed, glossy media or in point-of-purchase applications; you're in a portrait market and your high-end niche is to provide wall-sized prints; you're financially well-off, love to take landscape photographs, and have been butting your head on the limitations of the more mass-market cameras; and your ego demands the best.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE LEAF AFI, GO TO WWW.LEAFAMERICA.COM
KIRK R. TUCK (www.kirktuck.com) is a freelance photographer whose clients include Dell Computer, IBM, Motorola, and Time Warner, among others. His book, A MInimalist Guide to Lighting on Location is in its second printing by Amhearst Media.